After Ferguson, come the apologies for nothing

January 2015

Racially-charged campuses shut down the conversation

College campuses last week seemed more like centers of political reeducation rather than real learning as various academics have been forced into public apologies over references to the recent controversial decisions of grand juries in Missouri and New York.

Consider the bizarre case of University of California at Los Angeles law professor Robert Goldstein who based an essay question on his final on Michael Brown's stepfather, Louis Head, chanting, "Burn this b---- down!" after the grand jury decision. The angry mob proceeded to loot and burn various businesses in the town. With some calling for Head to be prosecuted, this was a ready-made question for exploring the limits of the First Amendment in a real-life situation.

However, Goldstein was immediately attacked by commentators like Elie Mystal of the blog Above the Law for being "racially insensitive and divisive." Mystal falsely stated that Goldstein's question asked students to "advocate in favor of extremist racists in Ferguson."

Goldstein actually apologized and told his students that he "clearly underestimated and misjudged the impact of this question." He proceeded to throw out the question in what seemed a cringing compliance with a new taboo subject.

The apologies continued at Smith College after President Kathleen McCartney publicly joined protesters in what she called "a shared fury . . . . [as] we raise our voices in protest." McCartney declared "all lives matter," but was immediately denounced for being too inclusive by not saying "black lives matter." Smith sophomore, Cecelia Lim, complained that McCartney was "invalidating the experience of black lives." McCartney asked forgiveness and promised not to stray from the expected language. (Ironically, the next weekend, a protest leader was heard rallying the crowd with the same inclusive message of all lives matter.)

At the University of Iowa, visiting professor Serhat Tanyolacar also protested wrongly with a striking statue of a Klu Klux Klan member composed of newspaper clippings on racial tension and violence. It was a striking piece of artistic and political speech designed to "facilitate a dialogue." Within hours, university officials declared the art to be "deeply offensive" and ordered its removal. It effectively declared the art, which is protesting intolerance, to be itself a form of hate speech. Tanyolacar issued a formal apology and a university official who had promoted the art also apologized for his "own privilege and culture bias" that blinded him to the feelings of African Americans.

In the meantime, Columbia Law School postponed exams after minority students insisted that it was difficult to sit for exams and apply legal principles that are used to "deny justice to so many black and brown bodies." The law school agreed and Robert E. Scott, Columbia's interim dean, postponed the exams due to the "trauma" of the decisions which "threatens to undermine a sense that the law is a fundamental pillar of society designed to protect fairness, due process and equality." Students at other law schools are demanding similar delays in their exams.

I sympathize with students who feel deeply injured by what they view as injustice and Columbia was right to reach out to students. However, as lawyers, we work in a trauma-filled environment where not just the rights but the very lives of our clients are sometimes in the balance.

In the cacophony of apologies, what is being lost is the sense academic freedom and free speech on college campuses. Ironically, Tanyolacar did "facilitate a dialogue" but it is whether an open dialogue is still possible on our over-charged campuses.